By RICK SOLEM
It’s been a dismal season for the Milwaukee Bucks.
I know, “Thanks Captain Obvious.”
Some would argue, that’s a good thing, as the Bucks are the favorite for the NBA Draft Lottery so far with a 7-33 record – losing the last nine consecutive games.
But the way things are headed, this could have catastrophic consequences in the long run and things are getting worse.
A top pick may not be worth the losing mentality that's gained. And when the veterans that are there to help steer the ship begin a mutiny, then it’s time to unload those veterans or make things right.
The Bucks have both cases. Caron Butler and O.J. Mayo - two of the few veterans - are unhappy. Mayo has every right to be. Butler does not. They’ve both seen their minutes drop over the past few weeks.
Mayo, 26, signed for 3 years, $24 million, should be a big part of this team’s present and future. Butler, 33, and signed for 1 year, $8 million, is an asset. He should know that, know that he’ll be traded and just be a good teammate, showing the younger players the ropes.
Instead, he wants his.
“The information I received before coming here is that 'You're going to play a lot,’ ” Butler, a Racine, Wis., native, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “And I want to play. I want to be out there to help the situation.”
Problem is, his being out there - the way he's playing - doesn’t help the situation, and his talking publicly about it really doesn’t help.
"If we're developing on the fly, and I know Giannis (Antetokounmpo) has to play and guys have to play,” he continues, “but OK, there are a lot of ways those guys can play and we can still be out there developing those guys as well.’
By “we” he means ‘I’ as in he 'can still be out there.’
“I know it's a process and we'll get through it. … Hopefully something turns for the better for the team and myself."
Ah, “myself.” He could be talking trade. He could be talking minutes/shots. Why is he talking?
SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
For starters, head coach Larry Drew.
Milwaukee has players, but Drew - first year with the team - distributes minutes so sporadically, nobody knows what’s going on.
"It's hard to get a rhythm when you don't know what's going to happen for you night in and night out,” Mayo, told the MSJ. “You may get 6 minutes, (then) 30 minutes. There's no staple to what we're doing.”
Mayo’s right. His minutes the last five games: 19, 30, 7, 17, 30.
The team has no direction, aside from ‘tanking.’ They don't necessarily need a go-to player, but someone on the court needs to be looked toward. Problem is, nobody is on the court consistently enough to develop into that role.
“If you don't have a backbone to what you do, whether it's going to be a defensive thing, an up-tempo thing, a pound-it-in-the-paint thing, a drive-and-kick thing,” Mayo continued. “We've got to find a staple as a team.”
The Bucks have future go-to players and maybe that’s what Drew is trying to establish, but Antetokounmpo isn’t ready for that. He’s not a scorer at this point. John Henson could be that when his post game is polished. But not yet.
I’ve said all along Ersan Ilyasova, 26, needs to be that, but his minutes the last five go, 19, 23, 29, 33, 26. And his shots fluctuated anywhere from 16 to 3 during that span. The smooth-shooting forward is making just over $8 million the next four years, so he's not going anywhere.
It’s hard to say why the 6-10 Turk can be a go-to player. Maybe it’s his mentality. It definitely could be the minutes. It also could be his teammates. When Butler plays extended minutes, for example, he makes sure he gets his shots. Surely thinking, “Why not, we’re not winning anyway? I’m a free agent next year.”
But that’s short-sided thinking because ‘getting yours’ isn’t basketball and that mentality isn’t wanted on any team.
Last year, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis rarely let anyone else touch the ball. This year, Brandon Knight has tried to take on the scoring role - perhaps out of necessity - but he needs to develop into a pass-first point guard.
If Drew were playing the young guys for development purposes, then it would make sense, but while Butler doesn’t play (0, 5, 19, 16, 0 minutes the last five games), PG Luke Ridnour, 32, has averaged 29 minutes the last two weeks – though he played just 11 minutes last game.
Drew has lost this team and these comments from Butler and Mayo are the beginning of an implosion. Mayo needs to play. His comments speak of a player that wants direction for his team, not shots for himself.
He showed he can be an unselfish, secondary option in Dallas. In the first half of last season, he averaged 17.9 points, shooting 46 percent from the field and 41 percent from the arc, to go along with 4.3 assists and 1.3 steals.
The guy he was playing second fiddle to, Ilyasova’s long lost older brother from Germany, Dirk Nowitzki.
Butler, on the other hand, needs to be traded right now. But his comments hurt his trade stock, and he should realize that. Nobody wants to offer anything for a 33-year-old, give-me-the-ball forward. He’s just going to end up on the bench for one of the last prime years he has left.
THERE IS GOOD NEWS
I don’t mean a lottery pick.
First and foremost, Milwaukee doesn’t have Brandon Jennings on its roster.
Jennings is making about $8 million over the next three seasons. He’s just as awful on Detroit as he was with Milwaukee - maybe even more so.
The 24-year-old point guard went 0-for-6 with zero stats save for six assists Monday in a 112-103 loss to the Chris Paul-less Clippers. He didn’t manage a rebound, a steal or even a free throw.
Jennings is significantly worse in just about every stat category than he was last year, which is a tough feat, since he was pretty awful then, and the players around him now are much better. He does still manage, however, to get as many shots as he did last year - and managing to miss more, too.
He’s shooting .374 from the field – worse than his .399. He’s worse from beyond the arc (.340 to .375) and worse from the free-throw line (.781 to .819).
He’s averaging a few more assists, which he should be playing with two bonafide studs inside in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. But he’s averaging more turnovers, as well (3.2 to 2.5).
Jennings was dealt to Detroit in a sign-and-trade for Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Viacheslav Kravtsov.
MORE HOPE FOR MILWAUKEE
Along the same lines of the Bucks losing Jennings, they got Knight. The 22-year-old is making strides during this dismal season, though there’s a lot of room for improvement. Also, he’s making around $3.8 million per season over the next three years – $5.0 million during the team-option third year.
Knight is averaging 15.9 points - 19.0 over the last two weeks – on .417 shooting (he shot .407 last year). His assists are up (4.4 to 4.0) and turnovers are down (1.8 to 2.0) and his free-throw percentage is up significantly (.838 to .733).
Now, if he just had an offensive presence.
Middleton has also shown glimpses of greatness. The 22-year-old, 6-foot-8 small forward is averaging 10.7 points (.438 shooting), 4.3 rebounds, 1.0 steal and 1.8 assists.
He’s had a 29-point, 7-rebound and 27-point, 5-rebound, 4-assist game this season. And, he’s making under $1 million the next three seasons.
So, the Bucks have players, actual NBA players and mostly on the cheap.
Henson, 23 (4 years, $10.9 million), and rookie Antetokounmpo, 19 (5 years, $12.8 million) - who just grew another inch - will soon be studs in the league. Saint Cloud, Minn., native Nate Wolters, 22, has shown he can play, though Ridnour has been getting those minutes – and started over Mayo the last three games. Wolters, however, is only under contract for this season at 1 year, $490,000, so he may not we worth resigning.
Even Larry Sanders, who re-upped for 4 years, $44 million this offseason, has started to come around after tearing ligaments in his thumb in a bar fight.
Like Butler and Mayo, he’s also not getting the minutes, but not because of coach. His biggest problem is committing fouls (3.5 per 25 minutes). He’s fouled out twice in 15 games.
Most of the pieces are on the team - perhaps no centerpiece, but basketball doesn't always need that.
The answer may be as simple as finding a coach that can command respect and make the pieces fit. The question, however: Is this team so broken, the pieces cannot be repaired?
Or is the answer Kansas freshman Joel Embiid?